Here's What Critics Think of Tenet, a Movie the Rest of Us Should Absolutely Not Go Out and See

John David Washington tried to warn you.
John David Washington tried to warn you.
Image: Warner Bros.

Christopher Nolan’s latest Nolany-pile of Nolan-ness, Tenet, is currently set to release in American theaters in September, but it’s releasing in Europe and other parts of the world that have had a marginally better time—“marginally” being the operative word—handling the novel coronavirus pandemic. That means reviews are trickling in.

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But while they have plenty to say (in the most vague way possible, to avoid spoilers of course) about whether or not Tenet is worth a trip to the movie theater, very few have anything to say about whether or not doing so is a wise thing to do right now. Several of the first reviews of Tenet that do address the context of its release, no matter how briefly, note that they were seen as part of a screening in London, England this week.

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Currently, the UK’s National Health Service statistics indicate that the rate of infection number in the London Region is hanging at around 0.9-1.1, indicating that the virus is hovering around a rate of exponential growth. It should be noted that this is quite a vast area of the country—including not just the City of London and Greater London, but smaller regions around it—so it is not quite as accurate in comparison to other NHS regions. But it is still an indicator that the spread of covid-19 while this screening took place is charting. And it’s not ideal, really.

But pandemic, schmandemic. What did these critics think of Tenet after seeing it? Well...they thought a lot of things, apparently! Reviews seem to be all over the range, with the only real consensus being that, for better and worse, the movie is Christopher Nolan at the peak of his powers, whether that be in his penchant for action or his penchant for twisty-turny narratives that are as confounding as they are compelling.

For what it’s worth, The Guardian believes Tenet is “not a movie [that’s] worth the nervous braving a trip to the big screen to see, no matter how safe it is:”

Tenet’s real engine is its action sequences, in particular one involving a cargo plane and another multi-car chase. They’re good; they have to be. As the eagle-eyed have pointed out, Tenet is a palindrome, which means it’s possible you’ll see some of the same scenes twice. Yet, for all the nifty bits of reverse chronology, there’s little that lingers in the imagination in the same way as Inception or even Interstellar’s showcase bendy business.

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Indiewire’s C- review of the film praises glimpses of an “effervescent, boundless, city-hopping romp,” but says Tenet is too bogged down in familiar tropes to have fun with its time-bending premise:

The setup invites comedy: a world spun on its axes, where bullets return to guns and the rules of gravity are suspended. But there’s zero levity in Tenet: Nolan simply reverses time in an effort to bring dead ideas back to life. And if he couldn’t have envisioned Saturday-night moviegoing being among them, it feels doubly sorrowful that a film striving to lure us all outdoors should visit this many locations and not once allow us to feel sunlight or fresh air on our faces. Visually and spiritually grey, Tenet is too terse to have any fun with its premise; it’s a caper for shut-ins, which may not preclude it becoming a runaway smash.

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Variety praises the spectacle of Tenet’s time-inverting effects, in comparison to how the movie’s world sets up the possibility of those effects:

Written this way, the setup sounds like standard-issue Ian Fleming stuff. The trick, of course, lies in that misty, sexy concept of time inversion, which is better seen on the screen than explained on the page — though Nolan, as is his wont as a screenwriter, doesn’t skimp on slightly stodgy, film-pausing explanations either. Like Inception, it’s a film where well-informed characters often ask questions (“Do you know what a freeport is?” “You’re familiar with the Manhattan Project?”) to which they immediately supply a detailed answer. As much verbiage as Nolan devotes to unpicking his jazziest ideas, the excitement is all in their cinematic illustration: The film’s eerie images of bullets hurtling backwards through inverted air (the detritus of a coming war, we’re told) are more striking than the neat theory behind their trajectory.

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Empire’s four-star review praises the movie as what James Bond could be stripped of its own long legacy, lauding the film’s globetrotting spectacle:

Tenet is Bond without the baggage. Filmed in Italy, Estonia, India, Norway, the UK and the US, it’s a globetrotting espionage extravaganza that does everything 007 does but without having to lean into the heritage, or indeed the clichés. Just as with Indiana Jones, for which George Lucas persuaded Bond fan Steven Spielberg they could create their own hero instead of piggybacking on someone else’s, Nolan has made his own Bond film here, borrowing everything he likes about it, binning everything he doesn’t, then Nolaning it all up (ie: mucking about with the fabric of time). And while Washington — never not magnetic, every second of this film – isn’t a suave playboy in the slightest, he has the swagger — and the odd wisecrack. “Easy,” he says in response to some light manhandling from one of Andrei’s security goons. “Where I’m from, you buy me dinner first.” In the same sequence, Andrei — a big bad if ever there was one — asks him: “How would you like to die?” Elsewhere we meet an arms dealer who casually swigs his whiskey while he has a gun to his head. This is absolutely the same playground that 007 runs around in, with the same toys. It just feeds it all through a physics machine.

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Digital Spy’s also four-star-review says that the film’s brisk pace and approach to explaining its world, meanwhile, will encourage repeat viewings from audiences—whether that’s wise or not:

Repeat viewings will likely improve your understanding of it all, as well as your appreciation of the jigsaw puzzle plot that Nolan has meticulously assembled. (And there are plenty of A-HA! moments as the movie goes on.)

On first watch though, Tenet likely would have benefited from some breathing space. It does truly put you in the shoes of the Protagonist, learning the world as he goes along, but it can be all a bit overwhelming for the viewer.

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The New York Times praises the film’s cast, even when they’re under-utilized, for grand performances in spite of a script that doesn’t quite support them:

Tenet dazzles the senses, but it does not move the heart — a criticism common to all of Nolan’s original films. And other widely recognized Nolan blind spots are also in evidence: it’s depressing that as fine an actress as [Elizabeth] Debicki should be saddled with such a cipher role, given a son in lieu of a character and made responsible for the story’s only bad decisions. Everyone else performs to perfection, especially Washington’s history-less protagonist who proves that not all superheroes wear capes. Some wear the hell out of suits so dapper that one of the film’s biggest laughs comes when Nolan talisman Michael Caine glances at Washington, looking better, in his dark-blue ensemble, than possibly any human man has ever looked, and sneers Britishly, “Brooks Brothers is not going to cut it.”

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Lastly /Film thinks that while the movie might be too much for its own good at times, it should still “exclusively be experienced on the biggest screen possible” (!):

No other artform could quite present such a collision of time, place, idea and emotion, and it’s clear that Nolan’s pure intent is to give us the utmost of what this medium can uniquely provide. At its best this is a ride that manages to be viscerally thrilling while still being emotionally and intellectually engaging, all in ways that are truly, uniquely cinematic.

In other words, say what you will about the tenets of Tenet, at least it has an ethos.

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So, Tenet. It sure is a movie! Should you go out and see it? No.

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

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DISCUSSION

I have a nice 65" 4K TV in my living room..

For the forseeable future I’m watching movies when they become available to watch them at home.  I didn’t venture out to theaters much to begin with anyways.